Fundamentalism and Culture Clashes in the 1920s


By Patrick N. Allitt, Emory University

Americans in the 1920s witnessed the moralistic intolerance of Protestantism in their country. It happened due to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The fundamentalists also tried to take control of the curriculum in the American schools. And the presidential election brought the rift between Catholics and the Protestants in focus.

Ku Klux Klan parade in Pennsylvania, ca. 1925.
For some of its members, the Klan was clearly just an opportunity to join a fraternal society.
(Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Reviving the Klan

The great revival of the Klan happened in 1915 at Stone Mountain, Georgia, about 10 miles outside of Atlanta. It was an organization that advocated white supremacy, not just in the great racial divide between blacks and whites, but also between Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the Klan members, and other groups like Roman Catholics and the Jews.

It thrived not only in the Deep South, but also in states like Indiana and Colorado and Oregon, whose black population was low, but whose Catholic and Jewish populations were higher.

The Challenge to the Klan

The Klan still practiced intimidation, occasionally lynching, extra legal punishments, but it was often directed against the groups who we think of as white. For example, the Klan’s influence and its lobbying persuaded the legislature of Oregon in the 1920s to pass a law specifying that every child in Oregon had to go to a school run by the state government. This was an attempt to eliminate the Catholic parochial school system, which was thriving there.

The Society of Sisters, a society of nuns, protested against the enforcement of this law. The case went to the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the Sisters, in a very important case, called Pierce v. The Society of Sisters. From that time to the present, the principle was being supported that although the state requires every child be educated, the state can’t require that its schools have a monopoly on the education.

The Ideology of the Klan

For some of its members, the Klan was clearly just an opportunity to join a fraternal society; to dress up, to engage in exotic rituals for men who felt that they’d once been the ideal American citizens, but that now they’d become more and more marginal to American life. They were often eager to support Prohibition. Some of the most enthusiastic pro-Prohibitionists were local Klansmen.

The Klan also didn’t like the development of what they thought of as a wild and dangerous youth culture. For the first time, teenaged boys and girls could go dating in cars. This was the period when jazz was becoming a great craze, petting in cars was common and so was the drinking of illegal alcohol.

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The Fundamentalists and the Scopes “Monkey Trial”

This was also the era in which fundamentalists, the heirs of the 19th century evangelicals, tried to prevent the teaching of evolution in state schools. Several states, including Tennessee, passed laws saying, “The children in this state must not be taught the theory of evolution.” The theory of evolution violated the account of the creation in the book of Genesis.

In the town of Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, a famous trial put this law to the test—the Scopes “monkey trial”.

A famous Chicago attorney named Clarence Darrow, who favored the Darwinian side of this question, volunteered to help John Scopes, the young high-school science teacher, in his defense. William Jennings Bryan, who’d had a prominent role in Democratic politics ever since the 1890s, volunteered to speak up on behalf of the state in favor of this law.

A photograph of John Scopes
John Scopes was a young, high school science teacher. (Image: Smithsonian Institution Photographed by Watson Davis/Public domain)

The Trial and the Verdict

The climax of the case came when Darrow cross-questioned Bryan about his beliefs in evolution and creation.

Finally, Scopes was convicted. He had taught evolution in the classroom, and in doing so he had violated the state law. To show that there were no hard feelings, Bryan, who had joined the prosecution, volunteered to pay his fine for him, and the law stayed on the books for the next few decades.

It was certainly a public relations defeat for the fundamentalists. It made it look as they, the small town Protestant people, were more and more out of touch with the great currents of national life, which were passing them by.

Hoover Vs. Smith

One evidence of the growing religious diversity of the nation was the fact that in 1928, for the first time, one of the major political parties decided to run a non-Protestant candidate for president. This was Al Smith, the first Catholic to be a Democratic presidential candidate. He lost very heavily in the election against Herbert Hoover, the Republican, partly because the economy was enjoying boom conditions, and the economy is usually the decisive factor in elections.

Smith also lost because people who normally could be depended upon to vote for the Democratic candidate, that is, white southerners, wouldn’t vote for a Catholic. They believed passionately that Catholicism was the antithesis of true Christianity.

Smith wasn’t the ideal candidate. There’s a story that when a journalist asked him what his policies would be for the states west of the Mississippi, he answered, “Uhm, which states are west of the Mississippi?” In addition, there was the allegation that he was far too much under the control of the pope, and the question of whether he was going to be attentive to papal and cyclical latches. In answer, he said, “What is papal and cyclical?” In various crucial ways, he wasn’t adequately prepared for the campaign.

It was the beginning of an extraordinary phase of American politics.

Common Questions about Fundamentalism and Culture Clashes in the 1920s

Q: What was the wild and dangerous youth culture according to the Klan?

The teenaged boys and girls could go dating in cars. The jazz was becoming a great craze amongst the youth, the petting in cars was common and so was the drinking of illegal alcohol. The Klan termed these changes as the wild and dangerous youth culture.

Q: Why Al Smith lost the Presidential election in 1928?

He lost the Presidential election in 1928 because the economy was witnessing a boom. Another reason for his defeat was that the white southerners did not vote for him as he was a Catholic.

Q: Why was Scopes convicted?

Scopes was convicted because he had taught evolution in the classroom, and in doing so he had violated the state law.

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Ku Klux Klan: Origins and Some Unknown Facts
Why the African Americans Shifted Political Affiliations
Challenging God: The Theory of Evolution of Life and Creationism